Playing them, playing themselves

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

Match review: Scunthorpe United 3 Bradford City 2 (Toner, Jones)

By Alex Scott

This game typefied this year’s City team. Nothing more so than the turning point that wasnt a few minutes after Ivan Toney had made it 2-2. After a great cushioned header at the back post, the ball dropped to Billy Clarke unmarked on the penalty spot with the goal at his mercy, who then proceeded to strike a perfectly timed half volley two yards wide. That sound of almost-laughter amongst the fans not knowing what else to do, in front of a backup drop of City players trudging backwards with their hands on their heads is this team’s leitmotif.

Here lies Bradford City 2016/17, we never expected them to score, anyway.

Sundays defeat at Scunthorpe in itself is no disgrace – they are a good team – and despite it, City remain a strong favourite for a play off spot. City in fact played well for long stretches. But no matter the positives, this team leaves you obsessing over what might have been.

At the end of the August transfer window, Stuart McCall and Greg Abbott both publicly lauded the flexibility of the squad they had assembled. However the opposition lined up, City could have a counter, and further an opposition would never be sure how City were going to set up in a given game. Today was the most glaring example of this, with McCall opting for an unconventional 3-3-1-3 to counter Scunthorpe’s main threats of narrow wingers Josh Morris and Hakeeb Adelukan. Though it must be said that despite the theory, the formation seemed to flip throughout the first half between a 5-1-4 and a 3-1-6 depending on where the ball was.

It can be argued it worked. Although City were cut open frequently on the counter, the final ball evaded the home team with City defenders clogging their passing lanes. Morris and Adelukan were anonymous. Despite this, McCall’s team appeared disorganised and uncertain, playing a formation that likely not one of them had ever played before. They threatened mainly from set pieces and counter attacks. They were the still the better team, and played well, though throughout never shaking the look of a band who sold their guitars and bought turntables, and can’t remember why.

The more you watch this team, the more this lauded flexibility seems a reaction to the manager’s lack of confidence. I’m admittedly of the Bassettian School so my opinion should be taken with a pinch of salt (read: disregarded) but with one of the division’s best wingers, a pair of in form goalscorers, and a solid frame of four-banks available, it’s curious why the manager isn’t being more assertive. City have shown time and again at the end of close games that they border on irresistible when they go direct and play through Mark Marshall.

The more you watch this division, the more you realise there is little out there to be afraid of. This isn’t a vintage division. It’s there if they want it. Stop worrying about what everyone else is doing. Shut up and play the hits.

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

The game began with the all too familiar notes of shaky goalkeeping from crosses and a man unmarked at the far post. It’s like City’s calling card. A cartoon villain lurking ominously behind Stuart McCall ready to ruin his week at any given moment. THUD! OOOF! THWACK! 0-1! Someone dig out the Big Sam Batsignal.

This week’s calamity was especially fraught given the home side had two men standing over the dead ball, and two men held back to ward off the counter attack. City had a 9 to 5 man advantage in the penalty area. And three centre halves. And Timothee Dieng. And Charlie Wyke. Maybe it’s time to give zonal marking a try? Or no marking at all? Maybe just stand everyone on the goal line like an indirect free kick? Maybe just go for the intentional handball and take our chances from the resulting penalty? (They surely can’t be any lower?)

Anyway, one good thing about conceding an impossibly soft goal every week means that City have had to develop their resilience and they showed that in spades overturning the deficit within ten minutes. Firstly, McCalls’s mercuial nemesis did him a solid (some men just want to watch the world burn) as debutant central defender Kevin Toner was left curiously unmarked at the back stick, as if he had an invisibility cloak over his clothes, able to head in Billy Clarke’s free kick with ease.

Within two minutes, City were in front. From another Scunthorpe corner (which Doyle was able to claim) City’s joker in the pack Mark Marshall was sent careering away on the counter, the ball eventually finding it’s way to conspiracy theorist and host of The One Show Alex Jones to rifle into the bottom corner. It was the high point of an excellent performance by Jones who is quickly looking like a snip at £30,000. He is becoming an automatic starter.

The rest of the half carried on in a similar pattern to many this year with City on top, if not creating too much in the form of clear cut chances. That said the usual equilibrium was slightly upset by the sight of poor Dieng running around trying to cover a midfield often on his own. Even for a side who always look a little fragile in defence, this was a particularly death defying first half, like watching a toddler on a tightrope. They made it through the half unscathed, though with the look of a team who needed a lie down and at least one more goal to be safe.

That was reinforced in the opening stages of the second half after Ivan Toney bagged his second, suspiciously soft, strike of the afternoon. This had followed a good spell of city pressure to start the half with Marshall down the left flank.  But again, City have become used to overcoming their own frailties, and continued to be the dominant side for much of the second half.

City kept plugging away after Clarke fluffed his lines, whilst being kept on their toes by Scunthorpe counters. Clarke, turning into the skid of his own dented confidence, eschewed slipping in Jones with the goal gaping instead opting to fire straight at the defender. Luke Daniels made improbable save after improbable save.

City’s pressure culminating in a curious passage of play where the aforementioned home goalkeeper lost out in a challenge to Charlie Wyke before falling to the ground, hoping in vain for a free kick and when this wasn’t forthcoming stayed down on the floor, allowing Meredith to fire City ahead into the open goal (read: blaze the ball over the bar). This lack of composure from the League One Left Back of the Year was completely fitting with his side’s afternoon, and was the moment you realised it was to be one of those days.

Sure enough, with eight minutes of normal time to play, City managed to step on the rake with ‘Set Piece Gaffe’ emblazoned on the side, this time Dieng losing his man. Thwack! Groans. 2-3.

All of this foreshadowed ten of the more ridiculous minutes you’ll see this season. McCall responded to falling behind by sticking Dieng up front in a 4-2-4, and his team cranked out their eponymous debut with the bass turned up to 11. City could genuinely have scored five goals. They should have scored three. I will go to my grave not knowing how the defender stopped Meredith scoring from that header.

I love the grind of being a football fan, the week in week out mundanity, in the same way I love Season Two of The Wire and lose a little respect for those who skip over it for expedience (too busy having lives or something). However, if you missed the first seven months and just began paying attention to this season in the 82nd minute today, that’s about as good as a ‘Previously… on Lost” recap as you could find. Everything you’d ever need to know about this team was out there for all to see. They are a marvellous team to watch. They leave everything out there on the field. But they do it to themselves.

It is now looking like four from five for the play offs and City should still have enough about them to get themselves over the line, though this season – enjoyable as it has been – is looking likely to end up as a what might have been.

We’re now into the final six games; City are what they are. Often sublime, sometimes dominant, ultimately undone by their own frailty. This is a team to be admired, adding creation to the commitment of years past. There isn’t a better side in the division outside of Sheffield. But they have two key characteristics in their DNA: they cannot convert dominance into goals, and they cannot defend set pieces.

When the pressure rises in the play offs and the margins become thinner, they will likely be their own undoing. They do it to themselves.

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Categories: Match Reviews

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15 replies

  1. That’s a great write up and sums up the season as a whole, what might have been. It could still be what might be, but something has to change in our ever more fragile back line. Getting done by the sucker punch maybe hard to take on the odd occasion, but becomes a bitter pill to swallow when happening again and again. Cannot remember a season where so many potential points have been squandered.

  2. When we gain promotion through the play-offs we are going to need a whole new defence for next year.

  3. The best and most honest review of this year. I’ve seen writers lavish praise on the “fluidity” of our play this year. I have often laughed.

    The line “The more you watch this team, the more this lauded flexibility seems a reaction to the managers lack of confidence” sums this season up.

    Today was keystone cops tactics. I’ve watched City for nearly 40 years and that was as fluid as it gets. We had 3 defenders and 7 men bombing around doing what they wanted. It’s exciting, it’s breathtaking, but its cost us all year.

    As a fan of many decades I love Macca. I want him to remain as manager but we need to wise up.

    Remember, we’ve spent a fair bit this year as well.

  4. Excellent assessment, we could have (and should have) won. I too have reservations about the formation when we play three at the back – when we adopt that it seems to result in good central defenders in wide positions where they are not happy. Having noted Stuarts comments I agree that we were unlucky not to score during the second half, but the lack of attention to defending is woeful.

  5. If it wasn’t true it would be funny. We are coming to the end of season and we will get in the play-offs. We should have had more this season even though none of us expected it at the start.

    Im now thinking of players who will go and who I want to keep because I don’t think we will win the play-offs (Millwall if there or Scunthorpe for me). I think next year we will be promoted as we are only a couple of players short and that will come in pre-season.

    One player who will be gone unfortunately in my opinion is Darby. Out of contract and probably on his way to Bolton.

    Overall this season a great surprise given all the excitement but im more expectant for next season

    • I agree about Darby – what a shame. A great defender sat on the sidelines. He’d be in every week if it was up to me.

  6. I tend to agree both with Alex and Wayne. When Parkinson walked out I would have been delighted with any position above 10th. When Stuart came, a hero, I was thrilled. But we are so much better than Scunthorpe—Bury, Gillingham, Fleetwood, yet we failed. I think we failed because of wrong tactics, being too wide open at the back . But the profligeracy in front of goal is criminal, and it happens every match. Clarke’s miss was a crime.
    I think we shall probabably scrape the play-offs, but, as Wayne says, we need more strength. With Andrew Davies and McLaughlin, we would have won yesterday.
    One thought—was Doyle mentally prepared yesterday. His mind seemed elsewhere.
    Suart has to sort out a better tactical plan.
    Yesterday was so terribly frustrating–to outclass a team and contrive to lose.

  7. 2 things stand out from yesterday for me; where was Charlie Wyke all afternoon and we have a competent German ‘keeper.

  8. Keeping has been “iffy” a few times, with poor positioning. We should have won that game. Some of our players decision making can be poor at times (Macca)
    Saying that, I think this has been a good season. The lack of firepower up top has been solved. Jones (still not quite fit) scores. Wyke scores.What has hampered us is all those draws. We have been better since January.
    Our new owners have done what they said they would do – invested in the right sort of players.
    I think we’ll end up in the play offs. I wouldn’t want to play Millwall, but I don’t think we will, as their cup exploits seem to have taken their toll. I’d happily play Scuny, as I think on another day we’d have them. Fleetwood the same. Would not be so happy with Southend.
    We’ve only lost 6 in the league all season, so yesterdays game probably feels bigger than it should do!

  9. Very frustrating result, we have to stop defending like the dog and duck Sunday team but be more clinical at the other end ?? that said I thought we were excellent going forward at times, and mostly enjoyed the game

  10. Whilst yesterday’s result was a real kick in the guts, I still think we’re punching above our weight. We flatter to deceive. We’re ahead of schedule. I think the start to the season took everyone by surprise given the changes over the summer. Even then, I knew we’d make further changes to the squad. Hanson’s departure didn’t feel like this was just down to his form and injuries this season. It felt like part of a plan to bring down the age of the squad and replace him with a player who could be developed.
    We have a different regime running the club. One who, whilst not expressing it publicly (yet), won’t be too disappointed if we miss out this season, as we’re ahead of their master plan. They’ve a long term view where missing out this season is not the disaster it will be to some fans. That’s because they’re building a team routed in the foundations of young, hungry players. The reassuring thing is that, financially, we don’t need to get promoted this season. Finances haven’t been gambled on a make or break drive for the Championship or a good run the Cup.
    One thing I do know, the football has been great this season and okay we’ve drawn games we should have won (and a few we should’ve lost) but we’re heading for exciting times with our new owners. It’s a great time to be a City fan.

    • Totally agree Wolfy

      I honestly don’t think we are ready to go up this season but I believe with another transfer window we would be.

      Don’t get me wrong if we did go up you wouldn’t turn it down but I just think one more season with these owners and management team we wouldn’t be fighting relegation if we got there

    • How do you know we haven’t gambled financially? Rhodes’ and Lawn’s plan was to always start a season in the black and although we have new owners I can’t see where we have increased our revenues.

      Yes, we’ve sold James Hanson but haven’t had any cup runs this season so I’d be interested to see where we are financially. It certainly doesn’t appear that we are living beyond our means but I’d be interested in knowing how we can support a bigger playing budget without money coming in from outside – and my impression is that we do have a bigger playing budget.

      Clearly there’s a new model now at VP. One which might include investing in young players now to sell for a profit in the future. If that is true we need to get into the Championship as players in Leagues 1 and 2 don’t go for big bucks.

      That said high level finance is beyond me so I’ll admit to not knowing what I’m talking about. I guess I need someone to go through it with me in Janet and John language but in my world if income exceeds outcome I’m happy.

  11. Nice one Alex 👍🏻
    My main gripe with SM is how we change our usual system to match the opposition
    I believe we should impose ourselves on the opposition and let them worry about us rather than vice versa. By all means change things if necessary but let’s be in control first and foremost

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